WEEKEND EDITION FEBRUARY 17-19, 2012
Hypocrisy and Syria
Few spectacles have been more surreal than senior US officials – starting with the President, the Secretary of State and the US ambassador to the UN – solemnly lecturing Assad and his beleaguered Syrian government on the need to accommodate rebel forces whose GCC sponsors are intent on slaughtering the ruling Alawite minority or driving them into the sea.
At one grimly hilarious moment last Friday, these worthy sermons were buttressed by a message from Ayman al-Zwahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, therefore presumably the number one target on President Obama’s hit list, similarly praising the ‘Lions of Syria’ for rising up against the Assad regime. Al-Qaeda and the White House in sync!
The last time the United States faced serious internal dissent was in the 1960s and early 1970s, from war resisters and black and Native American movements. The government responded instantly with a methodical program of violent repression, including a well-documented agenda of assassination.
In 1993, the first year of the Clinton administration, federal agents launched an armed assault on a religious group in a compound outside Waco, Texas. The Feds deemed the compound and the Branch Davidians therein, headed by David Koresh, an affront to their authority. After seven weeks, Attorney General Janet Reno concluded that negotiation with the besieged Christian fundamentalists was useless and ordered an assault. Seventy-six Branch Davidians were burned alive. Autopsies showed that five children were among those shot to death by federal agents. The outcome was widely endorsed by the national press and Attorney General Reno commended for her resolve.
No one could doubt that determined separatist activity or armed challenges to the government of the United States are always met with immediate, overwhelming and lethal ferocity. For further historical illustration I recommend an interview with any moderately informed American Indian or black.
For a while it looked as though Obama’s government was being swept into yet another intervention, ranging itself shoulder-to-shoulder with the GCC coalition, headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, stoking the fires in Syria. That momentum was certainly checked by the Russian and Chinese veto of the US-backed resolution presented to the UN Security Council.
Maybe it’s fanciful, but perhaps enthusiasm for underwriting the destruction of the Syrian state was somewhat undermined by the late Anthony Shadid’s excellent report from Libya in the New York Times of February 9. Shadid (struck down by an asthma attack at the end of last week on the Syrian-Turkish border) described a dismembered country, rent by banditry, torture and summary executions.
Civil war in Syria would be of a brutality and level of bloodshed far beyond what is transpiring in Libya – as veterans of Lebanon’s civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, or of the sectarian bloodletting in Iraq in 2006-07, can attest.
There is no doubt that Assad’s police state is corrupt and brutal. There is every reason to press Assad towards reform. But it has become plain that negotiated reform is not on the agenda of the rebels. To the contrary, the bombs that killed 28 and wounded 235 in Aleppo, no doubt set by Sunni suicide bombers, probably operating through al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, were intended to elicit government repression, not to encourage negotiation.
The performance of the western press has been almost uniformly disgraceful. In the wake of the Aleppo atrocities, network journalists blandly quoted spokesmen for the Syrian rebels that the Syrian security forces had blown themselves up to discredit the rebels.
Aisling Byrne of Conflicts Forum recently described in considerable detail the propaganda machine that has provided a non-stop flow of mendacious bulletins eagerly seized upon by the western press.
As Byrne reported, “Of the three main sources for all data on numbers of protesters killed and numbers of people attending demonstrations – the pillars of the narrative – all are part of the ‘regime change’ alliance. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, in particular, is reportedly funded through a Dubai-based fund with pooled (and therefore deniable) Western-Gulf money (Saudi Arabia alone has, according to Elliot Abrams allocated US$130 billion to ‘palliate the masses’ of the Arab Spring). What appears to be a nondescript British-based organization, the Observatory has been pivotal in sustaining the narrative of the mass killing of thousands of peaceful protesters using inflated figures, ‘facts’, and often exaggerated claims of ‘massacres’ and even recently ‘genocide’.”
But will the US really mount a covert supply effort to the Syrian rebels? The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, may use the undiplomatic word “disgusting” to describe the Russian and Chinese vetoes, but perhaps these vetoes came as something of a relief, getting the US off the hook, in terms of action rather than rhetoric. An article in The Washington Post of 11 February was headlined: “As carnage builds, US sees ‘no good options’ on Syria”. In the story, the reporter wrote that the US government has “no appetite for a military intervention”.
Does Israel really crave Assad’s fall, a prolonged period of anarchy and the probable emergence of a Sunni regime eager to confront Israel? All in all, Syria under the Assad dynasty has been a relatively good neighbor. Turkey has its own Kurdish problems which Syria could exacerbate if it wanted to. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia was careful to tell the New York Times that “international intervention had to be ruled out”.
Assad has been written off many times in recent months. Israel’s Ehud Barak said a while ago he would be gone in weeks. In December the US State Department described Assad as “a dead man walking”. But Syria is not Libya. Assad commands an army that has remained loyal. Large numbers of Syrians gaze into the abyss and decide that, all things considered, they don’t want to follow the fate of Lebanon, Iraq or of Libya. The obits for Assad’s regime have been premature. He could be with us for a while yet and it seems that behind the thunderous rhetoric the US government may be accommodating to that fact. On the other hand, Peter Lee in his excellent, very well informed report on this site this weekend, remarks, “My take on the situation is that the United States is willing to let the GCC chew up Syria as a consolation prize for not going all out on regime change against Iran.”